Report from Rollover Pass

Report from Rollover Pass

May 19, 2017 ~ Birding at Rollover Pass is chancy. We have had great days, but other times nothing is going on. Did you know the area gets its name from the time when smugglers avoided the taxes and fees at the port of Galveston by rolling barrels of rum and liquor for import or export across the narrowest part of Bolivar Peninsula? Now it is a man-made cut that links Galveston Bay with East Bay. I hear it is a great fishing location and is the subject of quite a controversy as there are plans to close up the opening. Supposedly there are good reasons to do so, but it sounds like a potential engineering epic fail to me. You can read a pro-closure article and the case to keep it open.

It is a great place for birding. One thing you can do there is practice your bird-in-flight shots as the cormorants and pelicans often fly at eye level. Or if the tide is low the shorebirds will be taking advantage of the shallow mud flats on the inland side. Do you remember this photo from a post I did about Spring Migration in 2014?

Birders brought by tour guides to Rollover Pass - Spring Migration 2014

We stopped by recently after a morning at High Island and drove to the back side. The tide was much higher than in the photo above, but ... looking off to my right I saw:

Great Blue Heron with giant fish
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; from truck window

From a distance I thought it was a flounder! Great Blue Herons do eat large fish and other prey; we have seen them struggle with some YUGE fish.  But this just didn't have the right shape. We drove over to the edge of the mud flats and set up our crates and tripods to watch this drama.

Working it...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000;

He dunked it several times, maybe to make it more flexible. I am pretty sure it was dead when he found it; my photos show the eye is just gone. Bill Maroldo told me what kind of fish is was but I forgot.

Trying...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

But, sometimes he made a bit of progress getting it turned and in place to swallow. I was rooting for him, but then worried it was too wide and what if it got stuck in this throat? I mean you can't just call a rehabber to come out and catch this wild bird choking to death.

Another attempt...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

He was a very persistent fella. Great Blues do not tear prey apart, the swallow it head first.

Maybe this time...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

This might have been his most successful attempt, but after about 10 minutes he gave up and walked off to find something ... slimmer to eat. And we started looking at the other birds in the shallows.

American Avocet chorus line
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1600;

There was a small flock of American Avocets feeding around a little island. They would pass, sweeping the water for prey in a mesmerizing black-on-white moving pattern and then stop and stare at us. The beautiful russet color is their breeding plumage and they will soon move on to the Great Plains states to breed and raise chicks.

Post-bath wing flap
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

Some of them took baths. All of the birds knew we were there; but they just didn't seem to care. Some of them got really close. There were Tricolors, a Great Egret, several Snowies and a bunch of terns a little further out. The light was good, a nice little breeze and we were enjoying the variety.

And then...

Great Blue Heron showing off
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

A second Great Blue Heron arrived. Oh boy, did he make an entrance. For a while he was so close I was getting headless shots like the Reddish Egret a while back. I didn't want to take off my teleconverter because I was sitting in the mud and had no place to safely put it. In retrospect we should have tried to ease our way back 10-20 feet, but when something exciting happens you are always afraid if you move, you will spook the shot. So we just sat there in awe of what was happening right in front of us.

Great Blue Heron male in full display
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

He finally moved back a ways so I could get him all in the frame. The above shot is not cropped. He trailed that left wing in the water as he strutted.

Big fluff up of Great Blue Heron
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

The other male was responding to the challenge. Note the super extended neck and head. He doesn't have his wings extended but has fluffed up to seem larger and more impressive. They were making slow circles around the open water. This kind of ritualized behavior is common among males early in the breeding season, but it is a bit late for that. These guys did not have the bright blue lores of breeding plumage; compare the above birds with the ones from The Other Rookery at Rockport.

I suppose it was just a territorial spat. These two guys may know each other and do this every day. Perhaps it was just a warning for the resident bird to stay on his side of the channel.

Great Blue Heron portrait
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

Sometimes we could only get head shots. This image is not cropped, only reduced to 1000px vertical. They made several slow circles but did not approach each other.

And then the interloper was gone. Whew. It had been a really tense 6 minutes and 122 photos. That is close to 3 shots per second. And some of that time I was just watching. We take so many photos; I had to buy another 5tb external hard drive last week. Bill said he was glad our cameras didn't take 10 fps because we would take twice as many photos!

A coiled ball of tension...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

With the Great Blue Heron drama over, we had had to busy ourselves with an active and eager Tricolored Heron. This little guy was hunting so low to the ground. He got in some real contorted postures.

Strike!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

Isn't that amazing? They strike so fast, I was surprised I got it. Probably because he was close to parallel to my lens and stayed in the narrow depth of field. I have a lot more good shots of our afternoon there of mating and bathing terns, plus a little Snowy that got so close I could almost touch him. I will put some of those in a Short Story blog later.

It was a good day.

Have you been to Rollover Pass? What birds did you see? And do you think the plans to close the pass will happen? Let me know in the comments below.

Chasing Birds with Bill and Linda

Chasing Birds with Bill and Linda

Up Close with a Reddish Egret

Up Close with a Reddish Egret